General Issues
Identity & Diversity
Specific Topics
Gender Equality & Equity
Citizenship & Role of Citizens
Scope of Influence
Start Date
Time Limited or Repeated?
A single, defined period of time
Targeted Demographics
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both


Women's Radio Listening Groups in Kenya

August 26, 2018 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
October 12, 2017 mariamzia
June 23, 2017 mariamzia
General Issues
Identity & Diversity
Specific Topics
Gender Equality & Equity
Citizenship & Role of Citizens
Scope of Influence
Start Date
Time Limited or Repeated?
A single, defined period of time
Targeted Demographics
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both

Kenya's radio listening groups and radio programmes promote gender equality and women's empowerment by disseminating the information necessary for women to claim their rights as citizens and to claim access to government services.

Problems and Purpose

Citizenship can be defined as the “right to have rights”, and participation as a process from being clients to becoming citizens (Gaventa and Barrett 2010). Citizenship also means having a sense of one own’s identity which is only possible if individuals are empowered to make strategic life choices. Women’s empowerment is the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire such an ability (Kabeer 1999). In Kenya as in many areas in the global south, women have traditionally been actively disempowered and, therefore, lack full citizenship. However, given the ability to make important life choices also requires access and claim to resources as well as unfettered agency in order to achieve positive outcomes. Radio listening groups in Kenya may have more individualistic outcomes for women. 

Women radio listening groups and radio programmes in Kenya are giving marginalized women access to more knowledge thereby enabling the process of empowerment. The groups can be understood as a democratic innovation as they disseminate information to their audience about their rights as women and citizens, and the services they are allowed to access.

The groups have been taking place in many areas of Northern Kenya such as Wajir, Mogodashe and Garissa districts; coastal regions such as Malindi; and Southeast Kenya. In many Sub-Saharan African contexts, academics have found that there needs to be an effort to further “promote gender equality and empower women”, and the radio listening groups attempt to achieve this (Sterling, et al, 2009).

Background History and Context

Kenya has a devolved government structure and women are learning how to get involved through democratic initiatives such as radio listening groups. The mainstream media of Kenya continues to show women having traditional and domestic roles, resulting in women remaining uneducated as these customs stand (Orlale, 2015). Women are excluded from information and communication technologies for development (ICTD) which is not beneficial for both women and community development (Sterling, O’brien and Bennett, 2009). Therefore, community radio is enhanced so that listeners can communicate with broadcasters to increase the inclusivity of women in society. This is why women radio listening programs are essential as they are participatory in many ways.

The Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability (Citizenship DRC) states, “participatory, rights-bearing forms of citizenship” will contribute to responsive and pro-poor governance (Gaventa and Barrett 2010). Kenya has a weak state ruled by an authoritarian government, but a strong civil society and a dense level of NGOs, both locally and nationally (Musembi 2010). There is a disconnect between national NGOs that are rights-based; and local NGOs that focus more on development and poverty, having more of an associational approach (Musembi 2010). Most of citizen action in Kenya happens, therefore, through its CSOs (civil society organizations). The state has a strong role in promoting local government, however there is a lack of institutions between state and civil society.

i.               Malindi

Malindi is a coastal town in Kenya, and a village began a women radio listening group, funded by the Ford Foundation. However, the infrastructure in rural areas and traditional practices such as early marriage challenge sophisticated technologies.

ii.              Northern Kenya – history of massacres and conflicts (Wajir, Mogodashe and Garissa districts)

Northern Kenya has faced many massacres in the districts of Wagalla, Bulla, Punda, Malkamari, Wajir, and Modogashe (African Woman, 2010). Massacres and conflict has affected women in the northeastern province of Kenya in various ways, leading to a weak socio-economic situation meaning markets and schools were closed down (African Woman, 2010).

For instance, women faced many problems in the conflict zones of the Modogashe area. Soldiers had kidnapped and abducted women in these areas to act as conflict concubines for them. Hundreds of young girls were lost in almost every village of the conflict zones while other women were raped in front of their children (African Woman, 2010). The women faced social problems such as neglect by communities because of children born out of wedlock and complained about the lack of commitment by the government, because of conflict in the area. The women radio listening group from Modogashe stated how they were also raped by military officers - people who were supposed to be providing protection and patrolling the conflict zones. The chairlady of the Modogashe women group stated that her daughter was a conflict concubine and her community is unreceptive (African Woman, 2010). 

There is a village called Kalagur that hosts hundreds of ostracized women with children out of wedlock, however conditions there are poor as they depend on relief food because there is no support from the government or communities.

Garissa district, also victim to conflict and massacres, had women abducted and widowed because of inter-clan clashes and now the women want their rights heard (African Woman, 2010).

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

i.               Ford Foundation, UWEZO Fund and AMWIK (Malindi)

The Ford Foundation is a private foundation with the mission of advancing human welfare. Through radio listening groups, women have learnt how to access the UWEZO Fund for economic resources - an organization that works to improve literacy for children through participatory approaches. The Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK), an organization that works towards enhancing the visibility of women in leadership and decision making roles, has promoted these radio listening groups to encourage women to put pressure on the state to provide them with services (Orlale, 2015). The Ford Foundation has trained women in Malindi on the usage of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and taught them online marketing through which they sell their handcrafted products on social media and websites, ultimately generating income.

iv.             The Kenya Pastoralist Journalist Network, TJRC, AWC (Wajir, Modogashe and Garissa districts 
                 Northern Kenya)

The Kenya Pastoralist Journalist Network is a non-profit media development organization that uses community media and outreach, advocacy campaigns and education in imparting, educating and disseminating information to marginalized pastoralist communities in Northern Kenya (Namati, 2017). The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) addresses the cause and effects of historical injustices and gross violations of human rights. The commission is formed of commissioners from Kenya and foreign countries, drawn from expert backgrounds and listened to complaints from victims. (TJRC, Wikipedia, 2017). The African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWC) is also a media-focused, non-governmental organization that has a vision to include diversity and gender equality for sustainable development (AWCFS, 2017).

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Know how participants were recruited for this initiative? Help us complete this section!

Methods and Tools Used

Two 'types' of radio participation were used:

Serian Radio (Samburu district, Northern Kenya)

Serian Radio is a community radio near Samburu district, northern Kenya, that empowers women in pastoralist communities. It raises awareness and knowledge on solutions related to women’s issues, allows for feedback from the listeners, making women’s voices heard (Sterling, O’brien and Bennett, 2009).

Advancement through Interactive Radio (AIR)

AIR is a software and hardware system that adds interactivity to community radio , giving radio listeners a voice with which to respond to programming, and to participate in the creation of programming content (Sterling, O’brien and Bennett, 2009).

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

i.               AIR allows women to talk back

Advancement through Interactive Radio (AIR) gives women an opportunity not only to respond to radio programming content, but to create their own for the community radio station. This was deployed in Kenya in Fall 2007 and is a participatory approach in the sense that it engages women to act through ICT. Participatory Action Research (PAR) has shown that instead of simply consuming and listening to information, women will benefit more from producing information themselves for their advancement (Sterling, O’brien and Bennett, 2009). Initiatives such as these raise women’s potentials.

Feasibility studies and site visits were drawn upon in southeast Kenya to support the mechanism that enables women to “talk back” to the community radio station (Sterling, et al, 2009). There was design and implementation of a simple communications device that supports this model for use in communities that are off the cellular grid which includes a hand-held device that enables women to record voice feedback and news for community radio. Further research is needed as it is not discussed in feasibility studies how voice recordings are delivered to radio stations. Questions of transportation costs need to be answered.

As important as it is to receive information from the community radio, it is important to deliver information to the community radio as well. Rural areas of Kenya such as Malindi and southeast Kenya are examples of locations where the infrastructure and culture challenges sophisticated technologies. Direct interaction between women and radio will positively influence community radio programming, benefitting both women and the larger community. Interviews helped evaluate the impact of the AIR project grounded in Participatory Evaluation and Gender and Development theory (Sterling, et al, 2009). 

ii.              TJRC allows women’s voices to be heard

The Kenya Pastoralist Journalist Network held training workshops on the TJRC (Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission) and the Constitution for women listening groups in various areas of northern Kenya. They received radio from AWC, the African Woman and Child Feature Service (African Woman, 2010). Training was held in different districts of northern Kenya including for Wagalla women in Wajir district, women in Modogashe district and women in Garissa district. 

Wagalla women in Wajir wished for the TJRC to be headed by an independent people who understand the local language of Somali and Swahili, and who could assist women in rebuilding their lives because of the massacres that took place (African Woman, 2010). The women from the districts of northern Kenya hoped for the new constitution to have their rights guaranteed, to address injustices towards women and improve women’s rights for the future generation of women in this region. Women are confronting and questioning government abuse, proving that women radio listening groups can facilitate confrontational women. A strength of these groups is that they are creating a safe space for women to discuss their problems with other women. The radio listening group can also be seen as a claimed space (Cornwall, 2011). However, in some cases, radio groups are not necessarily allowing women to make decisions that will greatly impact their life. Therefore, what radio listening groups are accomplishing needs to be assessed. 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The radio listening groups encourage women to participate in new socio-economic and political realms. The radio served as a platform for women to access information on current affairs or topics that were considered taboo because of cultural norms. These included topics such as female genitalia mutilation, issues such as gender based violence and the risks of HIV, and economic empowerment (Mogambi and Ochola 2015). Women became more educated on their rights and voiced their concerns to the government to demand for facilities and services. Radio groups are an initiative that is participatory in the sense that it enhances women’s rights in a society that has strong historical and cultural patriarchal values. Ford Foundation funding the radio listening group in Malindi can be seen as a successful group as it has progressed towards a digital resource centre (because it can afford it). 

i.               The contribution of Serian Radio

Serian Radio has empowered women in pastoralist communities. A study was done to determine the extent to which women participate in Serian FM programmes, the challenges faced by Serian FM and various issues faced by Samburu women (Mogambi and Ochola, 2015). The study found that Serian radio has worked to improve awareness and knowledge on solutions regarding community challenges and women issues in particular. The listening public provides regular feedback to identify listeners’ preferences (Mogambi and Ochola, 2015). Women target important discussions and avoid topics on politics and religion that may produce conflict (Mogambi and Ochola, 2015). However, as described earlier, this is changing. It allows for women who face common problems to come together and make engaging discussion pertaining their rights.

Serian FM created opportunities for women’s voices to be heard, emphasized on the importance of respecting women, addressed equality issues through programmes and invited experts to participate in programmes that addressed women communication issues (Mogambi and Ochola, 2015). As more women participated in programmes, their confidence was boosted and they had control over issues that affected them (Mogambi and Ochola, 2015). Such citizen engagement allowed citizens to become actors who gain skills that are powerful for challenging authority (Gaventa and Barrett 2010). Kenyan women began resisting exploitation and telling wrong from right.

ii.              The contribution of AIR

A study conducted surveys and focus group studies among women from several communities in Kenya (Sterling, et al, 2009). Although the AIR device is used to disguise voices, surprisingly enough, women wanted their real name and voice to be heard, even if they were discussing controversial topics. Many possessed their own portable radios in shops, homes and fields and some negotiated sharing with their husbands. Many had battery operated radios and described it difficult to purchase batteries, therefore a solar-powered recharge option was then provided for AIR (Sterling, et al, 2009). 

Cell phones have been rejected as an alternative approach to the custom AIR device because many areas of rural Kenya lack cellular service. Further, women said their husbands would take away their cell phones and sell it (Sterling, et al, 2009). A conference was held in Kenya in which project stakeholders met for development work to discuss PAR’s model – it was liberated through dialogue and subsequently empowered participants through knowledge creation and action. A benefit of radio listening groups is a platform for women to have conversation about one’s experiences in order to take action. There can be exchanges about the injustices individuals feel and they can develop strategies for positive change (Sterling, et al, 2009).

iii.            Other outcomes – strength in numbers and Kenyan government

There has been increased use of radio in Kenya through radio listenership, which is dominant and cheaper, because of radio receivers in public transport and increased use of mobile phones that receive radio signals (Empowering locals 2016). One outcome seen through the women radio listening groups was that it allows women to relate to one another, thereby helping to battle stigmatization (Gaventa and Barrett 2010). Radio women listening groups are an initiative that promotes citizen participation for marginalized groups who are under the systematic hierarchy of oppression (Arnstein, 2011). When citizens learn more about their rights, they have more power and are expected to make use of it. However, this power may not necessarily be used for the right purposes.

An interesting finding was that many women in conflict zones would only trust initiatives independent from the state and headed by NGOs or a respected foreigner. This is because many women have trust issues with the Kenyan government as they have observed people getting arrested if they oppose the government and have little or no action for their protection (African Woman 2010). Through training by the TJRC, women who listened to the radio were educated on the TJRC mandates and the commission analyzed all cases and offered recommendations. Further, the commission proposed reparation, rehabilitation, compensation and amnesty only if rendered by victims (African Woman 2010).

Community radio programs are a great strategy to break norms and stereotypes targeted towards women. Now that more women are listening to community radio, there is increasing awareness of cultural diversity. One major component of radio listening groups is that women are learning more about the various cultures and religions that exist in Kenya and are becoming more tolerable to them, as previously there were histories of conflict. According to the online magazine, Business in Africa, women are becoming more educated of the importance of commercial activities, and are devoting more time to this and making money. Furthermore, men are learning to respect widows and discourage property grabbing by listening to programming content, or if women communicate what their rights are. Domestic violence prevention and conflict resolution programs occur in which individuals appear on air to discuss their stories (Sterling, et al, 2009).

iv.            Overall Effects

“The poorest people are women; however, the poorest of the poor is the African woman.” Women need to benefit to the same degree as men in order for sustainable development initiatives to be achieved (Sterling, et al, 2009). Citizen engagement seems to have an affect on engaging citizens, but how these changes were made possible needs to be acknowledged and assessed. Development actors should recognize the role local initiatives such as a small radio listening group in Kenya can play to strengthen cultures of citizenship (Gaventa and Barrett 2010).

Kenyan women are getting involved in more participatory action by giving feedback to radio stations on topics of discussion that is more beneficial to them and other women, and by developing programming content on their own (Kaane, 1997). Participatory action by marginalized groups – in this case rural women – can have an impact in shifting cultural norms and government policies once they are given the right opportunity. This results in a more progressive and accepting society. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

i.               Challenging the effectiveness of women radio listening groups

The question remains whether women radio listening groups are more passive than active, that is, whether women simply listen to the radio or whether they also carry out action against the state. Studies have found that the radio programmes promote dialogue amongst women, but there is not much research on whether these discussions lead them to pressure the government to provide them with the services they need. Data is needed to prove that women are challenging or attempting to reform state action and government policies because of radio listening groups. Radio is a great tool to disseminate information to an illiterate population, but ideally such information should be provided by the government through state education. Technological solutions to poverty may not address the root problems in society. Perhaps there needs to be more emphasis on education or workshops. Formal education such as setting up schools seems to be the only alternative, but this requires a lot of infrastructure, while a radio is economical and accessible. It also must be taken into account that radio listening groups seem to target older women and it may be difficult for them to return to school when they are mothers and trying to earn for their families as well. Moving forward, organizations should target young women who are unable to go to school and more research needs to be done as to why older women are being targeted.

Many cases have shown that radio listening groups have been effective to some extent, but the effectiveness still needs to be assessed. To what extent radio listening groups have helped women to participate and enhance awareness on issues pertaining to their right needs to be evaluated. Further, the challenges faced in the process of providing locals with radio, including domestic issues, must be analyzed. Radio listening groups has led to women of all ages finding opportunities in economic realms such as selling their handicraft items (Orlale, 2015). Additional opportunities included women receiving part-time employment as volunteers in the activities of the Serian Radio station. It was empowering as it created a chance for women to earn some income. Serian Radio was participatory for women because the board had 20 members, out of which 20 were composed of women, allowing women to directly have a say in policy formulation at the station.

ii.              Challenges faced by women radio listening groups

Like any other innovation, there were many challenges faced. The major challenges were that the women were poor, illiterate and unconfident. Poverty impeded on women’s ability to purchase radio receivers and mobile phones to call radio stations and provide guidance (Mogambi and Ochola, 2015). There were situations where women were not keen to participate because they had low self-esteem as they were uneducated. However, when the radio program was in the local language, there was more participation as people identified more with it and felt a higher level of ownership. Serian FM was in Samburu, for instance. An advantage present in radio listening groups is its transformative potential - the extent to which choices made can challenge and destabilize social inequalities (Kabeer 1999).

According to the Communications Commission of Kenya, the low level of ICT knowledge and high illiteracy rates amongst disadvantaged groups are barriers to progression. Furthermore, research studies have shown ICTs in the country to have positive effects, but fail to discuss the high operation and maintenance costs that follow with them, especially as certain areas of rural Kenya lack necessary infrastructure such as roads and electricity. In today’s globalized world, we have progressed towards using technology as a means of gaining knowledge. This is difficult in remote areas of developing countries where the population is illiterate. The idea of women radio listening groups may be new to locals, but there is a possibility that it can become once given support by the government. Now, there is an increased access to mobile internet connections, including money transfer and mobile entertainment therefore communication methods are changing (Empowering locals, 2016). However, how well ICT is being used needs to be determined, after a cost analysis between radio and ICT programs. Moreover, it also needs to be questioned if all villages that began radio listening groups will necessarily progress towards a digital resource center since this has mainly taken place in Malindi where the Ford Foundation has funded the group, as this does entail high costs. Other local radio listening groups may not have enough funding for such prospects.

iii.            Challenges faced due to the socio-economic conditions of Kenya

Responsive states are states that provide services more responsively to their inhabitants (Gaventa and Barrett 2010). However, barriers such as lack of health infrastructure, social stigma attached to educating females, and lack of awareness pose a threat to the productive provision of services. Participatory groups such as the women’s radio listening groups shows Kenya in a much more positive light and therefore research on empowering women who are uneducated, marginalized and rural living needs to be drawn attention to. Through this case, we can see that there are organizations that are carrying out action such as training women about their rights who were victims of conflict. It helps contribute to participatory research and can serve as a model to transfer to other areas of Kenya and Africa.

Many words have shifted away from their meanings - participation has radical roots but may have fallen under a neoliberal policy agenda, citizenship is a combination of neoliberal and radical democratic meanings and empowerment has been depoliticized as its aim is not to alter power relations anymore (Cornwall 2007). Local radio stations are affiliated to big media houses but still lack training human and technical capacitates. They need to be trained more on radio content production, sustainability strategies, the reach, ethical issues on editorial policies and independence from political influences (Empowering locals 2016).

iv. Empowerment and Political Participation

Political context and methods matter when considering if citizen engagement can improve good governance accountability (Gaventa and Barrett 2010). There are different theories for what it means to be an inclusive citizen. “Institutional” theorists lie on the principle of democracy and believe citizens become more empowered through institutional design. Whereas, “mobilization” theorists are more development-oriented and believe empowering less favoured individuals will make them feel more included (Gaventa and Barrett 2010). The women radio listening groups were one such initiative. Democracy-building is geared towards making the state more accountable to the issues being faced in Kenya, while pro- poor development has less political motives and more material benefits. Empowerment within decentralized groups such as marginalized women contributes to social justice goals and proving that the oppressed, when united, have the ability to pressure the government to the demands they wish to achieve (Gaventa and Barrett 2010).

Women radio listening groups are shifting cultural norms and infrastructural challenges as it gives information on topics that were considered taboo; allowed for feedback from listeners; and allowed women to produce content by themselves. Women radio listening groups are not all same and they have varying degrees of success. More research on these groups needs to be done such as what causes this variance. The use of AIR has helped considerably as women are immersing in conversation about their experiences with injustice that may then lead to action. Ford Foundation and Serian FM have helped women learn much more about their rights and allowed them to participate on a personal level, as well as communicate with the TJRC. Community radio is erasing the stereotypes posed by mainstream media, and TJRC has found that women prefer initiatives that do not have the hand of the Kenyan government, giving strength to NGOs. This case shows a participatory innovation which involves both women empowerment and participation on the individualistic level.

See Also 

Women's Mediation Training Great Lakes & Horn of Africa Region

Kenya Youth Manifesto


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African Woman and Child Feature Service. (2010). Project Report on Training of Women Radio Listening Group in Modogashe District of Northern Kenya.

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"The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 11 Mar. 2017.,_Justice_and_Reconciliation_Commi...

External Links

Kenya Pastoral Journalist Network

Serian Radio

Advancement through Interactive Radio (AIR)


Lead image: Serian 88.9 FM/Facebook